Close encounter of the Manitoba kind
Precisely a half-century ago, the Falcon Lake Incident vaulted an amateur Winnipeg prospector into a UFO-sighting celebrity
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/05/2017 (2024 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
WHITESHELL PROVINCIAL PARK — The truth is out there, but so still are the answers.
New Mexico may have its Roswell, Britain has its Rendlesham Forest, Nova Scotia has its Shag Harbour, but Manitoba also has a claim to stake when it comes to one of the most notable unidentified flying object sightings around the world.
Fifty years ago, an amateur prospector saw something at a remote spot in this provincial park that changed his life and the lives of his family members, and not always for the better.
No one knows for sure what Stefan Michalak saw while he was looking for signs of gold and silver in the rocks in the Precambrian shield, but numerous military and scientific experts went to the site, tested the area, repeatedly interviewed him and, in the end, the report of the United States government-sponsored UFO project concluded that the incident was “unknown.”
Surprisingly, it was only a few days ago that for the first time, his youngest son Stan — who was nine years old at the time and has now co-written a book being launched this weekend about how his family experienced the unwanted attention from authorities and the media — visited the site itself, the big bang of the incident and the elephant in his family’s life.
“I’ve always wanted to do it — and then not,” Stan said earlier this month shortly before going to the site accompanied by the Free Press. “I don’t know why. This is closure. Putting the book together is kind of farewell, and I’m done.
“This will be the first and last time. It is a chapter of our family life and history that remained before us for a long time.”
What Stefan — who also went by Stephen and Steve — saw on May 20, 1967, at about 12:15 p.m., is now known around the world as the Falcon Lake Incident, considered one of the most documented UFO sightings of all time.
In a short 40-page booklet entitled My Encounter With The UFO, which Michalak wrote a few months after the sighting in his native Polish — and then had it translated into English — he said, “Up until the time and the events I am about to describe I had no special interests in ‘flying saucers’ and other strange phenomena one hears about time and again.
“Maybe they are real, maybe not, but I had never been seriously concerned about them. Not until May 20, 1967, when I, perhaps as nobody else — or at least very few — came in such a close contact with one of those strange objects commonly called UFOs.”
It all began when Michalak, 51, married with three children, and self-described amateur prospector, went to the Whiteshell on the Friday of the first long weekend of the summer looking for precious metals. As he had done before, he stayed at a motel that used to be on the south side of the Trans-Canada Highway. At 5:30 a.m. he got up, crossed the road, and began finding his way north through the pine trees and rock formations. Eventually, he got to a small peninsula on top of which were exposed rocks, trees and scrub, with a lake on one side and marsh on the other two.
He was chipping away at a quartz formation, just after eating lunch, when he was “startled by the most uncanny cackle of the geese that were still in the area. Something had obviously frightened them.
“Then I saw them. Two cigar-shaped objects with humps on them about halfway down from the sky. They appeared to be descending and glowing with an intense scarlet glare. As these ‘objects’ came closer to the earth they became more oval-shaped.”
One took off a few minutes later, while the second one landed about 50 metres from where he was crouching. He said there was an opening near the top of the craft with brilliant purple light coming out. After waiting several minutes, he went closer, stopping when he heard voices.
“They sounded like human, although somewhat muffled by the sounds of the motor… I was able to make out two distinct voices, one with a higher pitch than the other.”
Still thinking it was likely some type of new American craft, Michalak called through the opening, at first in English. When he didn’t receive any response, he called out in other languages. He even stuck his head in the opening where he saw “a maze of lights.”
The opening suddenly closed, but just before the craft took off, he touched it. It was so hot it burned the glove he had on.
“All of a sudden the craft tilted slightly leftward. I turned and felt a scorching pain around my chest. My shirt and my undershirt were afire. A sharp beam of heat had shot from the craft. I tore my shirt and undershirt and threw them to the ground. My chest was severely burned.”
Newspaper photos of the time show Michalak, his pyjama top open, with a series of circular third-degree burn marks making a square pattern on his chest.
Then Michalak began to get a headache, started vomiting and felt weak. He was able to stumble out of the bush and later that evening board a bus back to Winnipeg; his eldest son Mark drove him to Misericordia hospital to treat his burns. Doctors there, and in the United States, never could say how he got the burns. The next day he gave his first press interview, the first of many in the days, months and years ahead with media, law enforcement, government and military authorities.
A box of the booklets, written when Michalak and the family grew tired of answering the same questions from strangers, was stationed by the front door so that Mark could hand them to the curious.
Michalak concluded the booklet by not blaming whatever — or whoever — was on the craft for his injuries.
“The burns and suffering I had endured were not caused by any aggressive moves of the craft or its occupants… if I stayed farther away from the craft I would not have been burned or suffered in any other way.
“I offer this warning to all who may also encounter such a craft: keep away from it far enough to protect yourself.”
Who was Stefan Michalak?
At the beginning of his booklet, Michalak introduces himself as having being born 51 years earlier in Poland and emigrating to Canada in 1949, after “the turbulent years of the Second World War that started in my homeland.”
Those “turbulent years” included becoming a junior officer in the Polish army just before the Nazi blitzkrieg stormed in and took over the country, and then joining the Polish Home Army in resistance operations against the Germans. Because they were associated with him, his future wife Maria and her two sisters were arrested and sent to a concentration camp in 1943. All three survived and were liberated two years later.
Michalak, who was now serving with the resistance against the Communist regime, was forced to escape the country, even though Maria, now his wife, had one child and was pregnant with another. They didn’t see each other for almost a decade. They first lived in Regina, where their third child was born, and then moved to Winnipeg.
He was working at Inland Cement, located on Kenaston Boulevard behind IKEA, when he went off to the Whiteshell for what he figured would be one more weekend of looking for precious metals.
By all accounts, Michalak was not somebody who lied and certainly was not somebody who was seeking publicity. He just wanted someone to tell him what he saw and felt it was his duty to report it to the authorities.
By horse, it takes about 45 minutes to get to the site located a few kilometres north of the townsite of Falcon Lake. The trail is narrow, marked with a few elevation changes, and boulders and small rocks that horses try to avoid. There are plenty of tree branches and trunks forcing detours, and streams and boggy areas to cross.
But at least there’s a trail. When Michalak first went to the site, he was simply walking through the bush looking for minerals. He couldn’t even find the site the first time he tried to locate it for police, and then Life magazine. He managed to find it again about a month later.
A half-century later, everything has changed. Then-immature trees are now mature, towering over the site. Young trees are filling in some of the sightlines Michalak would have had. Much of the flat rock area is now covered by lichen and short plants.
But, the outlines of the site, as seen on a drawing he made of the area by memory for the RCMP and Royal Canadian Air Force, are still there.
It took most of Stan’s lifetime to get to the site. Maybe it was part of his personal catharsis of finally seeing the spot his dad saw through his own eyes, but the overriding thought he expressed aloud was simply: “What the hell was he doing here?”
Holding a copy of the hand-drawn map his father had made of the site, Stan continued to stand in place while looking around. Then he walked around, examining for a few seconds the line of quartz running through the rock. He peppered UFO expert Chris Rutkowski, who travelled with him to the site, with a few questions to get a better sense of where everything was. He walked some more, shaking his head back and forth. And then he looked off into the distance seeing only reeds, water and mud between where he was and the lines of trees in the distance.
It might not have been what Stan expected.
“There is nothing here to attract or entrance,” he said. “But I guess this was just a stop. He chipped at some rocks. He took a break. If it hadn’t happened he would have moved on until he was tired and then gone back to the hotel.
“But that’s not what happened.”
Seeing the site didn’t shake his continued belief of what his father saw.
“I always believed that what he said was the truth,” Stan said.
“I think what happened is exactly as he described… it pisses me off that people didn’t believe him.
“I still get angry.”
Chris Rutkowski, research co-ordinator of Winnipeg-based Ufology Research — and Canada’s foremost UFO expert — said the Falcon Lake Incident is one of almost 2,000 sightings from Manitoba’s historical records.
“If it’s a hoax it has enough complications to make it one of the best on record,” Rutkowski said.
“It is even better than Roswell, because with that one the government denies anything happened… and it takes effort to get to the place. But (Falcon Lake is) part of Manitoba’s history.”
Rutkowski said 1967 was “a watershed year” for UFOs in Canada.
“There were UFOs in Shag Harbour, where it crashed in the ocean, another in Rivers, Manitoba and a case in Calgary, where a photograph was taken of a silver object. Right across Canada there were an amazing number of sightings, for some reason.”
There are about 1,200 reported UFO sightings every year across Canada, he said. About three to five per cent can’t be explained away.
“None say we’ve been visited by aliens, but they are very curious cases,” he said.
Rutkowski said he not only has copies of the hundreds of documents produced by the authorities, he also has in his possession a piece of the melted radioactive metal found at the site.
Rutkowski said that from his knowledge of all the other cases, the Falcon Lake Incident is notable because, “(Michalak) reported just the facts without very much embellishment.”
“If I’d made it up I would have gone to town (with details), but he said what he saw. He didn’t care of anyone believe him or not.
“As far as what Stefan Michalak encountered — I have no idea. But it’s a riveting story.”
Five decades on, whatever happened near Falcon Lake is still of interest to UFO enthusiasts. Regular folks, too.
Local resident Bob Firth has no doubt that Michalak saw what he reported that day. Firth, who works at the Falcon Lake Golf Course, may have seen one of the two objects.
“I was 14 at the time,” he said. “It is such a weird story.”
Firth said he and three friends were at the beach on the south side of Falcon Lake when they saw something on the other side, north of the lake, moving westward.
“It was little. If you hold your thumb up, it would be that big. The thing just jumped across the sky. ‘What is that?’ And I said, ‘it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a flying saucer.’
“I didn’t think anything more about it.”
But later that weekend while his family was in Winnipeg to see Victoria Day fireworks, someone ran up to them and started talking about the Falcon Lake sighting. That’s when Firth realized he might have seen the same thing.
“I was later interviewed by someone with the University of Manitoba,” he said. “In my mind I can still see it. Something crossed the sky and disappeared.”
Barb Hamilton didn’t see the UFO, but that didn’t stop her and other local kids from getting caught up in all the excitement.
“I was 12 at the time and for young kids, after what happened, it started everyone to wonder,” she said. “We kids got together and formed a little club for UFOs.”
And they thought they were hot on the trail when one of them heard a beeping sound in the forest.
“We were all convinced it was something. We called all the kids together and we went off in the direction of the beeping sound. We couldn’t find it and came flying back and just screamed.”
But Hamilton said her dad suggested they speak with a wildlife expert and, after they did, she heard the sound of the Saw-whet Owl.
“Its mating call sounds like a machine,” she said, but quickly added that she doesn’t doubt Michalak’s story.
“I don’t think Stefan was making it up,” she said. “I think he saw something. I just can’t explain it.”
Falcon Beach Ranch owner Devin Imrie offers trail rides to the site for people who make reservations in advance.
This weekend, the ranch is hosting a 50th anniversary commemorative event with escorted trail rides to the site.
“We’ve been going to the site for a number of years now,” he said.
“It’s a real range of people who go there. We get a lot of people who had been in the area as kids. Others never heard of it before they came here and think it sounds interesting. And then we get a few UFO enthusiasts who know more about it than I know.
“They all are just fascinated by it.”
Imrie, who grew up at the ranch, said he did a school project on the incident.
“It really is part of the history of this community,” he said.
Launch of When They Appeared — Falcon Lake 1967: The Inside Story of a Close Encounter
- McNally Robinson Booksellers
- Grant Park Shopping Centre
- Saturday May 20, 7 p.m.
- Stan Michalak and Chris Rutkowski
The Falcon Beach Ranch is hosting a 50th anniversary celebration of the Falcon Lake incident Saturday and Sunday, including escorted horseback rides to the landing site at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., a barbecue dinner and a fireside chat with Stan Michalak, Chris Rutkowski and others. The cost is $65.
As well, reservations are taken at other times of the year for trail rides to the site. Call 204-349-2410 or go to www.falconbeachranch.com for more information.
Canada’s history, too.
On June 29, 1967, a rookie Manitoba MP stood up in the House of Commons and asked a question about UFO investigations and the Michalak case.
“I had felt obliged to ask a question — it had happened in my riding,” said former governor general and premier Ed Schreyer, then an NDP member of Parliament.
“Plus, I was intrigued that someone seemed so genuinely convinced he had seen something inexplicable. I asked the question and the question was taken not by one of the ministers, but by the prime minister himself.
“What did (Lester) Pearson do? He took it as notice.”
A few days later, Pearson offered him a chance to look through the government’s file on the matter. Schreyer refused.
“I didn’t take it because it required an understanding that you had to keep the contents confidential,” Schreyer said. “I thought that would put me in a problematic position. I just wanted to make sure there was no danger to the individual, the family and the country.
“I was reassured there was no significant danger… it was left somewhat as an open question.”
A few months later, defence minister Leo Cadieux was quoted in Hansard as saying “it is not the intention of the Department of National Defence to make public the report of the alleged sighting.”
Although he never met Michalak in person, speaking to him at the time on the phone, Schreyer said he hopes to visit the site this summer with his grandchildren now that he knows they can get there on horseback.
“Having made a point of trying to find out more information at the time, yes, I’d like to see the site with my own eyes.”
Standing on the flat rock that his father described as the one the UFO landed on, Stan was surprised how accurate his father’s hand-drawn map — drawn from memory in the days after the incident — really was.
While he expected to see the flat rock, he didn’t know it was sloped slightly.
“It still baffles me — the slant we are on — but then I remembered how he described the object tilt as it went up,” Stan said. “Now I know it probably tilted because it was coming up from a slope.”
Again Stan wondered: “What the hell was he doing here?”
“There is nothing for him here, the geology stakes and the looking for precious metals,” he said. “I sure as hell wouldn’t want to spend time here.
“But he was here. I know that now.”
And he has a theory about why his dad, and many others around the world, have reported so many UFOs in the post-Second World War years.
“When we blew up the first nuclear bomb and we sent our first radio signals, we got attention. Maybe it was, ‘What are they doing on that planet? Oh, they’re killing each other. Let’s check back in a few hundred years.’”
When Michalak died on Oct. 28, 1999 at the age of 83, there was no mention in his obituary of the Falcon Lake Incident, only of how his “passion for this vast, new country developed into a love of nature, open spaces, animals and birds and a celebration of what Canada’s unending wilderness had to offer” and that “geology became one of his hobbies and the reason for many trips to the wilderness to see the world in a grain of sand.”
For a man whose hobby of prospecting had given him such joy, the Falcon Lake Incident also marked the end of his amateur prospecting career, Stan said.
“When he died, we found several wooden boxes of rocks in the basement. I kept only one or two samples — the rest went into the garden.”
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.
Updated on Friday, May 19, 2017 10:33 AM CDT: Corrects date reference